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Faculty Profiles

Research Showcase – Lisa Keränen, Communication

The Rhetorics of Health and Medicine

The rhetorical relationships among medicine, health, and bioethics are at the heart of communication professor Lisa Keränen’s research and teaching.

“From the time we are born to the time we die, health communication is a fundamental part of our personal and public lives,” says Keränen. “I am interested in understanding how people participate in medical decision making, and I am concerned with the ethical dilemmas surrounding emerging health and medical practices.”

Her recent book, Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research (published in 2010 from the University of Alabama Press’s award-winning series on Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique)  addresses how various stakeholders participated in health decision making. Scientific Characters chronicles the contests over character, knowledge, trust, and truth in a politically charged scientific controversy that erupted after a 1994 Chicago Tribune headline: "Fraud in Breast Cancer Research: Doctor Lied on Data for Decade."

The book analyzes what happens when scientists, patients and advocates are called to speak in public concerning complex technical matters with direct implications for human life, and it sheds light on the challenges faced by scientists and citizens as science becomes more bureaucratized, dispersed and accountable to varied publics. It also considers the ethical dimensions of public communication about problems with scientific research.

Keränen’s other publications span topics such as biomedical controversies, end-of-life communication, and biodefense. As Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication, she teaches rhetorical theory and criticism and rhetorics of medicine and health. Keränen explains, “I have been so lucky at the University of Colorado Denver to be able to integrate my research into my classroom and vice-versa. My rhetoric students have discovered a real enthusiasm for understanding how their communication can impact democratic life, and my health communication students have become avid chroniclers of medicalization in society.”

“One of the things I am most excited about,” she says, “is working with the Program for Arts & Humanities in Health Care of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities on the Anschutz Medical Campus. The arts and humanities have so much to teach us about humane healing practices.”

Keränen is currently writing her second book, titled Envisioning Viral Apocalypse: A Rhetorical History of Biological Weapons from World War II to the War on Terror. The volume chronicles the rise of biological weapons across technical, public and popular imaginaries from the United States' installation of its first germ laboratory in Camp Detrick, Maryland, during World War II to the present post-9/11 "bioterrorism bonanza," which is characterized by unprecedented spending on both civil and military biodefense. Tacking back and forth between scientific reports, declassified government documents, public speeches and popular entertainment, the book charts the ascendance of the rhetorical vision of viral apocalypse as a recurrent and recognizable cultural form that drives biodefense research and development in consequential ways.

Keränen has won numerous awards for her research, teaching and service. Most recently, she was the 2010 recipient of the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Research Award from the National Communication Association. From 2008-9, she was a faculty fellow at the Center for the Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder.